Colombia, Venezuela Open Key Binational Bridge As Ties Warm

Cars cross the Tienditas International Bridge in San Antonio, Tachira state, Venezuela, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. Colombia and Venezuela on Sunday opened the bridge that was finished in 2016 but never inaugurated because years of political tensions. (AP Photo/Ferley Ospina)
Cars cross the Tienditas International Bridge in San Antonio, Tachira state, Venezuela, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023. Colombia and Venezuela on Sunday opened the bridge that was finished in 2016 but never inaugurated because years of political tensions. (AP Photo/Ferley Ospina)
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BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia and Venezuela on Sunday opened a key bridge linking the countries that had been closed for almost seven years amid political tensions, launching an era of improved relations under Colombia’s new leftist president.

Delegations led by Colombian trade minister Germán Umaña and the governor of Venezuela's Tachira state, Freddy Bernal, met in the middle of the “Tienditas” bridge linking Tachira and Colombia’s Norte de Santander state for the opening ceremony.

“From today, all the border crossings are open for transport,” said Bernal, adding that the political will existed to continue improving relations between the neighbors.

Construction of the bridge ended in 2016, but it was never inaugurated because of the political crisis between the South American countries. The bridge, which cost more than $32 million to build, was designed to ease congestion on the two other binational bridges in the area and facilitate trade.

In 2019, Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolás Maduro ordered more than a dozen cargo containers placed on the bridge to symbolically block it to protest attempts by the opposition to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela from Colombia.

Diplomatic and commercial relations between Colombia and Venezuela were reestablished in September following the inauguration of Gustavo Petro - a former guerrilla - as Colombia's president.

Petro’s predecessor, Iván Duque (2018-2022), had called Maduro a “dictator” and made Colombia one of 50 countries that recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, charging that Maduro’s re-election had been fraudulent.

”Tienditas” was the last remaining crossing linking the countries to be reopened along their 2,200-kilometer (1,367-mile) border following the restoration of relations.

“In political terms, ‘Tienditas’ is the symbol of the recovery of dialogue between the two countries,” said Ronal Rodríguez, a researcher at the Venezuela Observatory in Colombia’s Universidad del Rosario.

Pedro Benítez, a political analyst and professor at the Central University of Venezuela, told The Associated Press the key symbol of the restoration of relations was the first face-to-face meeting between Petro and Maduro in November.

Benitez said the reestablishment of trade relations between the neighbors so far has been “very bumpy” because incoming Colombian products have been very expensive due to “non-institutional obstacles attributed to Venezuelan officials.”

The resumption of commercial ties began with the enabling of traffic across the Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander bridges in September. From then until November, 385 trucks passed over the bridges, most from Colombia into Venezuela carrying products such as medical supplies, fiber optics, textiles, toilet paper and cardboard. Coiled steel, motors and pipes were transported from Venezuela into Colombia.

Between January and October 2022, total trade between the two countries reached $512 million, an increase from $394 million in all of 2021, but still a long ways from the $7 billion in bilateral trade seen in 2008.